Gamble Mansion: Civil War-era history on the Suncoast

ELLENTON, Fla. -- The old Gamble Mansion looks like something out of the movie "Gone with the Wind", and oh, the stories it can tell.

It's seen financial ruin, withstood hurricanes, been used as manure storage, and housed a confederate officer on the run for his life.

The Suncoast landmark was built by Major Robert Gamble in the 1840s. It was the heart of his sugar plantation. Gamble had attended West Point and served in 2nd Semiole War and the Civil War.

He had more than 3,500 acres there. "There was a wharf down there. Apparently he built his own ships. He had his metal smithing behind the house," says park manager Kevin Kiser.

He built a cistern to store water for the household. "The well had too much salt intrusion on it, so it wasn’t good for drinking. So he created this cistern to help supplement their water supply."

He owned more than 150 slaves. "He had one of the larger operations at the time. He had a modern sugar mill that was later blown up by Union troops."

But it wasn't a great loss. Gamble had only one successful year, then the bottom fell out of the sugar market, and he went bankrupt. "He went back to Tallahassee, took all his belongings, put them in his father’s barn, and a month later it burned to the ground."

At the end of the Civil War, the empty mansion became a hiding place for one of the Confederate leaders. “The Confederate secretary Judah P. Benjamin, often referred to as the brains of the Confederacy, he, on his escape to England, he was known to have hid here for a brief time."

Union troops launched an intensive search for him in the area. They didn't leave any stone unturned. "There was a woman in Terra Ceia who, known to be a farmer, she was physically fit to match his description,” says Kiser. “There was an account of the Union troops making her strip because they wanted to find out if she was a man. Because they knew Benjamin had been known to dress as a woman to hide out, they thought maybe she could have been Benjamin."

But Benjamin had made his escape, and the mansion stood empty and forlorn.

Gamble Mansion in 1902

Gamble Mansion in 1902

A hurricane came through there in 1921, and around that time it was bought by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They felt it had historic value because Judah Benjamin hid out there. They gave it to the state to make into a park.

"It's pretty much restored to where it was when he left here," says Kiser.

The Gamble Mansion is located at 3708 Patten Avenue in Ellenton.